Culture and Geographic Variation in Orangutan Behavior

11 November 2011 Science News

Although geographic variation in an organism's traits is often seen as a consequence of selection on locally adaptive genotypes accompanied by canalized development [1], developmental plasticity may also play a role [2, 3], especially in behavior [4]. Behavioral plasticity includes both individual learning and social learning of local innovations ("culture"). Cultural plasticity is the undisputed and dominant explanation for geographic variation in human behavior. It has recently also been suggested to hold for various primates and birds [5], but this proposition has been met with widespread skepticism [6-8]. Here, we analyze parallel long-term studies documenting extensive geographic variation in behavioral ecology, social organization, and putative culture of orangutans [9] (genus Pongo). We show that genetic differences among orangutan populations explain only very little of the geographic variation in behavior, whereas environmental differences explain much. more, highlighting the importance of developmental plasticity. Moreover, variation in putative cultural variants is explained by neither genetic nor environmental differences, corroborating the cultural interpretation. Thus, individual and cultural plasticity provide a plausible pathway toward local adaptation in long-lived organisms such as great apes and formed the evolutionary foundation upon which human culture was built.

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